My Grandmother’s Wheelchair


First Person

The author, posing with his grandmother, Natalie Faunda, at a park in Budapest, in 1990.

My grandmother had a stroke in her late sixties. She was out in her garden, struggling in the hot sun, when she collapsed into a row of tomato plants.

A neighbor heard her cries for help and called an ambulance. It was a mild case of heat stroke, a doctor said; he sent her home. That night, having returned to her house on Vaughn Avenue—in what, even then, was one of the poorest parts of Youngstown: a neighborhood on the East Side called the Sharon Line—she suffered a second stroke. This one was much more severe. When she stabilized, days later, the right side of her body was paralyzed. She had a few months to live, maybe a year.

Except that she didn’t; my grandmother would go on to live for nearly twenty years. And in the weeks that followed, at a local rehabilitation center, she learned to do with her left hand everything she’d done predominantly with her right: to write, to eat, to tie her shoelaces, to button her shirts. With the assistance of a quad cane, she eventually learned to walk—though in truth it was never much more than a shuffle. 

More frequently, though, she made her way around in a collapsible wheelchair, one that I remember now with an unrelenting wistfulness. I remember its heft, the leather upholstery (almost certainly artificial), the ribbed and worn rubber handgrips; I remember the polished chrome side panels, the firm rubber treads, the metal hand rims that extended out from the wheels; I remember the brake lever—only one, on her right side—that, even had it been on her “good” side, would have been woefully inadequate; I remember the footrest that kept her “bad” leg from dragging beneath the seat.

Confined to the wheelchair, and not knowing that her life expectancy had been poorly estimated, my grandmother must have lived in a state of perpetual resignation—except that she didn’t. When her husband, my grandfather, died in 1987, my grandmother came to live with my family, in a small town called Hudson, an hour west of Youngstown. And, two years later, when my father accepted a hardship assignment in Budapest, Hungary, she made the improbable decision to join us, to travel into what a few months earlier had been the Soviet Union. In just a few years, in spite of her stroke, she’d made her way from a decaying street in suburban Ohio to the hills of one of Europe’s great cities.

My grandmother didn’t last long in Hungary—a year, actually a little less. She struggled in and around our new home. She missed the comforts of an American culture that she’d never before left. And the Hungarian doctors, though well trained and eminently professional, weren’t accustomed to handling a stubborn and outspoken American.

But what matters to me is that she tried, that—even at the age of seventy-five, when the more reasonable decision would have been to live with one of the many family members who’d offered to host her in Youngstown—she opted instead for something more adventurous. Bound to a wheelchair, she left the United States for the first time in her life. She wheeled herself down Váci utca, around Margaret Island, through Heroes’ Square. She drove with us in the front seat of my father’s Lada, with my mother and my brother and sister in the back, and with me straddling the gearshift beside her. She traveled with us throughout Hungary—to Mátra in the north, to the Flower Carnival in Debrecen, to Szentendre. And then, after a tearful good-bye—not knowing that she’d still be alive four years later when my father completed his assignment—she traveled back to Youngstown, to live with my aunt.

This past winter, while I was home to see my parents, I visited the site where my grandmother’s house once stood. The neighborhood is worse than it’s ever been; entire streets are cordoned off, presumably as part of an effort to prevent the various abandoned buildings from becoming drug dens. (Despite the efforts, crime still thrives; VICTIM’S BONES FOUND PIECEMEAL ON SHARON LINE, reads a recent headline in the Youngstown Vindicator.) The house itself—brick, comprising four rooms, wholly insufficient for a family of eight—burned down years ago; all that remains is a dwindling pile of bricks and, near the edge of the lot, the charred coils of a mattress. The street is overgrown. Much of the block has been reclaimed by brush and scrub trees. A man from down the road, evidently one of the neighborhood’s last remaining residents, walked to the end of his driveway and stared out at me. He was clearly unaccustomed to tourists.

I stood for a while at the edge of the property, beside a road sign that read NO OUTLET. I left the engine running and the door half open.

I imagined the scene as it existed in all the stories I’ve heard: the house, the shed behind it, my grandfather’s run-down cars, the garden. I thought about my grandmother. I thought about her stroke, about how she’d crawled from the tomato plants into the shade to call to her neighbor, Annie Holt, for help. I thought about her cane and about her wheelchair, which had carried her farther from here than she could have imagined—farther, no doubt, than she’d have gone if she’d remained healthy, and independent, and comfortable.

Improbably, the wheelchair had been her ticket out. Improbably, her illness had been a stroke of luck.

Stephen Hiltner is the senior editor of The Paris Review. You can find him online on Instagram and Twitter.